Why living with strangers can make us happier

Residents put on meals every few weeks, and there are social events like a monthly singalong and parties. There is a member meeting every fortnight, and board and committee meetings, too. “I work full time,” Zearing says. “But there are a bunch of people who are retired, and there’s probably more regular stuff that they do together that I miss.” Each resident is expected to contribute four hours of work a week.

“What I really, really value is that we have a great community of parents,” Zearing says. “As a new mother I’ve been able to really lean on those parents for advice.” She also loves how she can come home from work, tired, and simply take her daughter out into the backyard to play with other kids. Friends and company are readily available.  

Not everything is straightforward, though. The co-house community just had a big meeting about participation. “Many of us who are actively engaged feel like they’re doing all they can do. And yet you see some people who aren’t presumably doing anything,” Zearing says. “But there’s a lot of invisible work that goes on.” Her husband has been burnt a few times, after suggesting new ways of doing things, and meeting resistance.

‘Intentional communities’

There is a wide spectrum of communal living setups in the Western world, and they have emerged for various reasons – in the UK, according to The Guardian, the Covid-19 pandemic contributed to the increase of interest in communal living. The members of one successful communal-living centre in Suffolk told the BBC in 2023 that their set-up was helping to protect them from the cost-of-living crisis.

“It can be really confusing,” says Penny Clark, who is on the board of community-living organisation Diggers and Dreamers, and specialises in “intentional communities” – homes where, according to the academic definition, five or more unrelated people live voluntarily together. In co-housing, people have their own self-contained homes as well as dedicated communal spaces, and the community is self-managed, she explains, whereas in housing co-ops, the ownership is shared – but the estate doesn’t always feel like an intentional community.

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